Part One: San Diego’s Poets
“Do you remember that girl from high school,” I ask Danny, who is sitting across from me, fiddling with the menu in his hand although not necessarily looking at it. “You know the one: she has bright eyes and a sharp smile that drive you crazy. You always think she’s so high above you because she’s convinced herself that she’s so much better than everyone else. The one that lives right next door but seems to exist so much further away.”
“That’s not ringing any bells,” Danny says. He has set his menu down and has resorted to idly stirring the ice in his cola with a bent straw. “The only girls that lived near me were frumpy and lazy. The boring types.”
“Danny, the question is rhetorical. I’m not talking about a girl you know, I’m talking about a girl I know, and – “
“ – and posing it as a rhetorical to make this girl seem like some kind of universal yet unachievable archetype to make this whole spiel seem more romantic than it is?” He finishes the thought for me, although I have to admit, it’s not nearly as elegant as I would have preferred.
“Sure,” I say.
“Okay,” he replies, blunt and stern in his position of apparently having no position. “Just so we’re clear. Go on.”
“Okay,” my turn, I’m trying to reach for some of the traction I had just moments earlier. “Okay. That girl that smokes even though she’s three years underage, and you think that blatant disregard for the rules is enticing. Daring, even. You want to impress her, so you find a way to ditch school with her a few times. She always seems so hard to get a hold of, despite how she smiles at you, casting those sidelong glances at you that these kind of girls love.”
“Dude, this story isn’t going to end with you crying in my lap over the girl that got away, is it?”
“Not at all. When have I ever wasted your time, Danny?”
Danny smirks at me and tilts his head.
“I’m not gonna cry or get emotional. At least not at this part. Because this isn’t really a story about this girl.”
“Then why bother?”
“I’m setting a foundation, Danny, trust me. Anyway. You always wonder what this girl is about, you know, at the root of her soul, but you manage to stay away because she’s gotten so goot at staying away from you. Despite all of this, you figure out how to love her, sitting out on the street waiting for her to come around, drawing sketches of the trees lining the road. Wishing from afar, you know?”
“You play guitar in your garage to learn a song or two that she might like. Stuff like that.”
“Never, but okay.”
I continue, finaly feeling like I’ve found my footing again. “Even though you know all of this – how she is and the way she acts and her American-professional game of keep-away – you know this is only because she’s hiding from you for a reason, and even though you know that if you take the first step, give her your hand and spit out a few pretty words – “
“ – like you are now,” Danny interjects.
“Yeah, like I’m doing now. Can I continue?”
“Please,” he says.
“Yeah. Even if you give her hand and spit out a few pretty words, she could be yours – despite all that, you decide not to take the risk, not to embarrass yourself, and not to ruin what could be a potentially stellar friendship.”
“Wait,” Danny taps the menu eagerly. “I’m not following.”
“Tell me where I lost you, Danny boy, and I promise I’ll bring you up to speed.”
“If it’s such a sure thing, why don’t you —”
“Not necessarily me,” I say.
“But pretty much, right?” Danny asks.
“Okay, so if you – or the hypothetical he – is so sure he can do this, then why don’t you?” Danny rounds out his thought: “or why doesn’t he?”
“Because young people aren’t very bright, Danny.”
“You’re young,” Danny says. “25 is a good year. I’m almost thirty. I’m an old man. You’ve got a good few years left on you.”
“Danny, can I finish, or should we go ahead and get out of here a little early?”
“Yeah, I’m sorry,” Danny says. “I’m listening.”
“It’s good. So anyway, instead of going after this girl, you grab onto a different kind of girl, the kind with a short skirt and dark nail polish, a wallflower with thick Venus flytrap vines and get stuck somewhere between misery and malice. But you never forget those eyes, that smile. You never forget the wonder of that girl, the promise of a scent, the dare, you keep sitting outside, keep drawing those trees, learning those songs, waiting.”
“Do you move on?” Danny asks. It’s as good of a cue as any.
“Yeah,” I say, and I feel like I probably sound a little more morose than I want to. “Yeah, you move on. You finish school, watching her move away, let your own girl slip away, get a job, and find a use for email. Do you get email?”
“I wouldn’t know, because you never seem to check it,” I say, trying to push some shame onto Danny from some unknown motive. “I get email. I like email/ Do you know why email is better than the telephone?”
“Because you can ignore it,” Danny says, vindicated.
“Actually, yeah,” I say. “You can totally ignore it. When you get emails you don’t want, you can delete them. When you get emails from someone you don’t want to talk to, you can just pretend they don’t exist. So when this girl from high school shoots you a line over the great wide Internet machine, you can just delete them.”
“Sounds about right,” Danny says.
“And, boom. Crisis averted. Right?”
“But when the telephone rings and she’s on the other end? Now, Danny, that’s a problem.”
“So, this girl called for you?”
“No, a different girl called me. Remember the other day when my shift at the video store ended early?”
“Yeah,” Danny says. He wrings his hands silently on the table top. “When you called to hang out but never showed up?”
“That’s right, Danny, that’s why I’m telling you this story, so you know why I flaked out and didn’t call to cancel.”
“Is it a reason or an excuse?” Danny jabs painfully.
“A little bit of both, but I’m pretty sure you won’t be disappointed.”
“Alright,” he says. “Let’s get this over with.”
“Okay. I always tell you that people don’t rent videos on sunny days. Not in San Diego. So the boss comes out and tells me to take the rest of the day off and I don’t argue. Apartment, college, car payments, and all on minimum rage, part time, never crosses my mind as a deciding factor.”
“Where does this other girl come into play,” Danny asks.
“Right here: I knew a different girl in high school, a girl who was very keen into the counter-culture. Which, I guess, would be to say that she’s good at trend-chasing at best. Thanks again to the wonders of the internet, this girl had been able to track me down in the most low-key of ways.”
Danny waves the waitress over for a refill on whatever it is he’s drinking and asks: “the first girl or the second girl?”
“The second girl,” I say.
“You’re going to have to start giving these girls name at some point or I’m going to get beyond overwhelmed.”
“Oh, right. This girl is called J.B.”
“Yeah,” I say as the waitress comes around to dole out the aforementioned refills.
Danny patiently waits for her to pass before continuing. He says: “you know, if you rearrange those letters – ”
“Nope,” I say. “It stands for something – not that – but I can’t remember what it is.”
“And the first girl? What about her?”
“Her name is Andie.”
“That’s a boy’s name,” Danny says.
“Dude, it’s a long story, but it isn’t important right now.”
“Okay,” Danny says, begrudgingly accepting of the narrative plot holes in my delivery. “So this other girl, J.B., calls you.”
“Yeah, I’m sitting in my car in the parking lot of the video store deciding where to go to grab dinner and my cell phone rings in my lap.”
“Are you going to order anything to eat? Speaking of dinner?” Danny’s hands have returned to his menu. “We’ve been sitting here a while and I’m just realizing how hungry I am.”
“Order whatever you want,” I say.
Danny waves the waitress over again as I continue: “So, J.B. calls me and I answer.”
“Because in high school, I didn’t think she was that bad. I mean, she was super transparent and not at all interesting in her predictability of following the layer just below the mainstream, but we always had fun when we hung out and things never got messy.”
The waitress makes her way around to our table. “More refills?” She asks, eyeballing our mostly full glasses.
“No, actually,” Danny starts, referring to his menu again for verification. “I’ll have this bourbon burger, except without the burboun sauce.”
“So you’ll just have a cheeseburger with mushrooms?” The waitress asks, taking the orderbook from the front of her apron.
“Yeah, sure, whichever is easier,” Danny says and hands the menu over to her.
The waitress looks to me with her pen in her hand.
“I’m good, actually, nothing, thank you,” I say to her. Once she’s cleared our line of sight, I pick up where I left off. “She was a fun enough person, so I answer the phone.”
“I keep expecting something bad to happen.”
“Don’t worry, man, we’re getting there.”
“Alright, so what does she say that’s so terrible?”
“It’s not what she says that’s bad, it’s how she says it. At first, anyway. I answer and she shouts – I mean, legitimately screams my own name at me, as if I’d somehow forgotten it.”
“She sounds drunk,” Danny says as the waitress arrives with his bourbon-burger-slash-cheeseburger-with-mushrooms. The waitress sets it in front of Danny on the table. “Thanks,” he says, and she leaves us once again.
“Most surely she is. I manage a feeble ‘hi’ at her and ask what she’s up to. I’ve already decided that I probably don’t want to hang out with her, but manners first, y’know?”
“Yeah, so I ask what she’s up to and she says ‘I’m just hanging out with Andie.’”
“And Andie is the girl you don’t want to talk to, right?”
“Right. J.B. says ‘do you want to talk to her?’ I tell her that I don’t, but I still hear the kind of shuffling static, the pushing and the fuzz of a phone being passed, and there’s a new voice. This voice is softer and sweeter than J.B.’s, which is all thick rumble. But it’s also too high-pitched in that unnaturally show-offy kind of way. This new voice is That Girl, it’s Andie. After so many years of trying to forget her, however unsuccessful as they were, the last thing I wanted was to be pulled back into her voice. Hers is soft and sweet and there’s just the tiniest hint of an accent there, the kind of thing that seems irresistibly endearing, but you can never quite figure out why.”
I stop for a moment to watch Danny, half way through his burger. His mouth is full, but I manage to convince myself that he tells me with his eyes to continue. I continue.
“Her voice lends back to her eyes, bright and stinging, and I always remembered her, that’s true. With alcohol, on the cold nights, daydreaming about surprise visits and fantasizing about the way things could have been. Then I realize: the last few years I’d spent away from her, willing myself to forget, weren’t a reprise. It was just the eye of the storm, and here I found myself in the hurricane waves again, and all she’d had time to say was ‘hello.’”
“So what did you do,” Danny asks. “What did you say?”
“Say? I didn’t say anything. I hung up the phone then and there and dropped it into the passenger seat right away. I was still sitting in my car, I hadn’t even started the engine yet, and I felt like someone had dropped a ton of bricks on my head out of nowhere.”
I take a moment to sip from the glass in front of me and gaze out the window. Suddenly, I’m not particularly keen on talking, but Danny comes out of the blue to break the silence. He has a set of skills, and one of those skills happen to be preventing any degree of dead air. “You just ooze charm, you know that?”
“I do know that,” I say, my throat heavy with the condensation of soda pop. I’m a charmer, it’s what I do.”
“Is this story winding to a close yet?”
“Nearly. I’m still sitting in my car in the parking lot by the video store, remember?”
“That’s right,” Dannys says as he leans back in his seat, his plate in front of him empty and barren.
“So my phone starts ringing again, and my first gut reaction is to ignore it. But like all siren’s calls to starved and lonely ships months out of port, I got pulled in. I answer it and I say ‘hello,’ but my voice is suddenly heavy, my voice dry. And the voice to come back to me was much less serenading than the one I’d imagined.”
“It was when I called to ask if you were still heading over, wasn’t it?
“It was you calling to ask if I was still heading over, and I said I would.”
“You said you would,” Danny repeats what I said, his eyes suddenly narrow. “And you never did.”
“I never did. I admit it. I went home to try to process this backwards and severely, sincerely unwanted wild card the universe just threw into my hand.”
“You went home and cried like a child,” Danny says. “That’s fine, though, your buddies had enough fun without you.”
“I’m sure you guys did. The last thing a gang of budding luminaries wants hanging around is an old jaded cynic like myself to bum everyone out.”
“You know, I wanted to talk to you about that,” Danny says, leaning forward against the table, a shark finally closing in on the prey it’s been circling for hours. “I mean, none of us will be mad if you want to quit it. It was your thing, though, and we’re not sure how long we can keep it up without you.”
“Yeah, here’s the thing, though, Danny,” I try on my teeth to see if they still fit. “Can we kick John out of the group?”
“You invited him in, man!”
“I know, but I hate him. That’s why I’m thinking, maybe, we can organize a vote, and all vote him out so no one will know it was me.”
“That’s assuming that everyone else hates him as much as you do,” Danny says as he hands his plate over to a busboy who is so visibly eager for his shift to end that he’s practically shaking with anticipation.
“How can you guys not hate him? He’s the worst writer I’ve ever read. The closest thing this joker has ever gotten to literature is The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
“Don’t be mean,” Danny chimes.
“I’m not being mean,” as brilliant of a retort as I can muster. “He’s a bad writer.”
“Do you really need me to explain it to you?”
“When we’re talking about exiling someone you brought into the fold, I kind of do.”
I can tell from his gentle yet stern tone that Danny has firmly planted his feet and isn’t budging, despite how I may flail and fight.
“He’s a bad writer. Because he has this shitty philosophy that, as a writer, he shouldn’t read. He’s handicapping himself yet has somehow convinced himself that he’s keeping his precious imagination safe from corruption. He wants to write a bitching science fiction story, so he stops reading, and he tells himself that it’s so he doesn’t influence himself with what every other sci-fi writer has done, but really, he’s just eliminating any kind of frame of reference he may have. He’s a bad writer because he limits his exposure – his influence, his research, all that business – to A Clockwork Orange and internet forums.”
“Wow, you’re really mad.” The waitress, during my argument which, in hindsight, seems a little self-righteous and wholly vindictive, had silently slid the check across the table. Danny lifts it idly and examines the bottom line.
“I am, kind of.” I smoothly wrestle the check from Danny’s hand and look it over myself. “It gets on my nerves. I can’t take him seriously and I feel he doesn’t take anyone else seriously and that’s counterproductive to what we’re trying to do.”
“Have you tried talking to him?”
“Fuck no. That is nowhere near where I want to be. That seems like the absolute worst thing to do right now.”
“You have a problem, man.”
“I think I just fully demonstrated that it’s John that has the problem.”
“Listen,” Danny presses, still leaning against the table. “Talk to him next week before the meeting, okay? And if he doesn’t improve in the next week, we can discuss a vote, okay?”
“Is that the best you’ll give me?”
“It’s my final offer, yeah.”
“Are you coming to the next meeting?”
“I don’t know yet.” I’m an angry kid who’s suddenly realized he isn’t going to get his way.
“I bet you need the help, anyway,” Danny says, brushing some crumbs off of his t-shirt.
“Help with what?”
“Your book. The September Tapes.”
“The December Tapes,” I correct him.
“That’s the one,” he owns the correction.
“That’s done, Danny.”
“What?” He’s suddenly less interested in his shirt than he is in me, although not by much. “When?”
“Last week.” I lean so far back in my seat that I nearly become part of the upholstery. Two years earlier, I’d’ve thought this day would have been one of the best I could imagine, but instead, I found The December Tapes was something I didn’t want to talk about. “After work. Half an hour of typing then I was finally able to pound that line ‘THE END’ onto the bottom of that piece of shit.”
“It’s short stories, isn’t it? Aren’t there, like, sixteen ‘THE END’s?”
“Something like that, yeah.”
“See, the group can read it for you! Give you notes or something.”
“Danny, I’m not sure I want notes.”
I feel as if I pause here. Not long, only quickly enough for Danny to register it – I see it in his gaze and struggle to get back to where I was. “I started that thing years ago, I’m not convinced it’s anything I want to push out into the world.”
“You should be proud you finished it,” Danny says.
“Yeah, I guess I am.” I sigh, but I try not to. It seems that kind of thing is a little too typical for this particular conversation we’re having. “I’m proud I finish it, don’t get me wrong, but I’m not so proud of what it is that I’ve finished.”
“Maybe I can read it for you,” Danny says. I get the sudden and violent vision of him, a man, desperately trying to put out a California wildfire with a garden hose. “How long is it?”
“I don’t know. A hundred-ninety-some-odd pages of desperate, vague writing in an attempt to be just like Stephen King.”
“And vague transparency is what bothers you about it?”
“No. I’ve never been delusional about what I am. Or about what I want to be or what I used to be. Three years ago, I wanted to write like Stephen King. That’s fine. That’s growing up. But I’m not sure that’s where I am anymore.”
“Who do you want to be now? Charles Bukowski?”
“I’m not sure what it is I want to do or what it is I want to be, but I know it isn’t what I wanted three years ago, and maybe The December Tapes isn’t part of it.”
“Do me a favor,” Danny says.
“Sure, what is it?”
“Submit The December Tapes to the group.”
“Look, I’ll think about it, okay?”
There’s a mile long silence between us. He looks at me and I try not to look back at him. At this precise moment, I feel like I’ve got nothing to say. That’s when I force myself to imagine something, if even to only break the long, wordless gap. I surprise myself when what I come up with actually means something. “Let me ask you something, Danny.”
“Ask me anything.”
“If I’m not in the group anymore,” I say, and I shake my head like a clumsy drunk, “I mean, if I do decide to leave, you know? Will you guys keep it together or will everyone split?”
“That’s a tough one,” Danny says. He gives himself a moment of his own to consider the question before he shrugs. “It’s really more your thing than any of ours, do you know what I mean?”
“No, that’s not what I mean. I mean, you created it, and you’re the one that keeps it running. Who else would make all of the copies and play phone tag to make sure everyone is going to show up?”
“I feel like I haven’t done that in weeks.”
“And when I don’t, do you guys still get together and function and work everything out?”
“We mainly get together and just talk about what we’re working on at the time or what we want to work on next.”
“I guess that I’m concerned no one is getting anything out of this that they really need or want except me. Do you know what I mean?”
“Yeah, I guess I do,” Danny says. “But I also know that I don’t think any of us would be there every week if we didn’t see some kind of value in it.”
“Good, I’m glad to hear that. Will you promise me something though, Danny?”
“I mean, I can try.”
“If I do decide to split and just not do that anymore, will you keep it going?”
“Are you thinking about leaving it for sure?”
“No, not necessarily. I feel like I just don’t have time for it right this moment, and I think maybe I’d like a change of pace, you know? An opportunity to do something different.”
“You mean, like, you want to start a band instead?”
“No, I mean, write something different. I think I’m finished with all that old stuff. I tried it, it was fun, nothing came out of it, I out grew it, I moved on, now I want to see what else is going on.”
“What do you want to write?”
“I don’t know. The great American novel, maybe. A big book about someone with an even bigger mouth yet he has nothing at all to say. Maybe poetry about fist fights and that girl.”
“That one I was talking about earlier.”
“I thought you didn’t like that girl.”
“Goddamnit, Danny, haven’t you been listening to me at all? It’s not that I don’t like her – I do, I like her too much maybe and I don’t want to spend a lot of time milling around it. And I don’t mean that girl specifically, I mean that girl as a trope.”
“Oh,” Danny says, and I’m still unsure if any of that has really set into his brain in a meaningful way. “But you hate poetry.”
“I hate bad poetry. I hate anything that’s bad.”
“You’re a pretty bad musician,” he says.
“Well, luckily, I love bad music. If I’m the one that’s making it.”
“Why can’t you do that kind of stuff with us, in the group? At least you’ll have someone to read it.”
“Danny, I love you, but I don’t love the group. You know, John alone is enough to make me bite through my lip. I don’t want to imagine what the conversation will look like when I show up with a bunch of poetry and someone stops and asks ‘why?’”
“No, man,” Danny says, peacefully dismissive. “You’re being too hard on them. They’re good kids.”
“Your heart is in the right place, Danny, but I don’t think you understand me at all.”
Danny laughs and runs his hand through his hair. “I understand you better than most.”
I stand up and I scoop the check off the table before walking to the register to take care of payment. Danny follows behind and waits patiently as I ring out with the cashier.
“Are you coming to the meeting this week? He asks as I finish up and turn to face him again.
“You mean I haven’t met my diner quote with you for this week yet?”
“You’ll get there eventually,” he says, holding the door open for me as we both walk out into the crisp, cool California springtime air. “But so far, not yet.”
“I’ll try,” I say, lighting a cigarette heading to my car. “But I’m not sure.”